Cambodia surprise: Khmer Rouge and Sihanouk meet

In Southeast Asia, appearances can sometimes be as important as reality. This may be one reason why the nearly "impossible" has just happened. Khieu Samphan, prime minister of Cambodia's ousted Khmer Rouge government, has returned from Singapore to his jungle guerrilla forces inside Cambodia. He has completed a mission to court favor with popular former Cambodian leader Prince Sihanouk and respected former Prime Minister Son Sann. The two men have nothing but disdain for everything Khieu Samphan represents.

What brought these highly unlikely partners to a conference in Singapore?

Quite simply the Khmer Rouge wants the "appearance of respectability" and noncommunist rivals Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann want the "reality of guns."

An important reason is China.

Peking backs the Khmer Rouge as the only effective, trained fighting force capable of "bleeding" Vietnam's occupation forces in Cambodia. But it recognizes the political liability left from mass killings by the Khmer Rouge government before Vietnam invaded Cambodia in early 1979.

The Khmer Rouge must, in China's view, shed its violent image if it is to gain popular support in Cambodia and retain its United Nations seat during an expected Soviet bloc challenge to its credentials at the General Assembly meeting this fall.

To help the Khmer Rouge change its "appearance" China has let it be known that the "respectable" but weaker guerrilla forces led by Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann are more likely to get arms and other goods if they are willing to cooperate with the Khmer Rouge. The noncommunists have tiptoed cautiously in this direction not only because they intensely dislike the Khmer Rouge but also because they know they could lose popular support in Cambodia if they appear too close to the forces of Pol Pot.

The fact that the Singapore conference could be held at all demonstrated the extent of the pressures making for this hesitant flirtation.

As for the results, the "ice" was clearly broken. But it could well freeze up. The Khmer Rouge delegation quickly left Singapore without even appointing a representative to the joint committee set up by the conference to study the possibility of a coalition leadership for the united front.

The conference also set up a joint military council to coordinate military campaigns. But Prince Sihanouk pointedly explained the council would not lead to an amalgamation of resistance forces.

Both Prince Sihanouk and Son Sann quickly voiced their differences with the Khmer Rouge, although the agreement signed states the parties will not quarrel in public, nor have their forces fight each other. There were reported concerns within both Sihanouk and Son Sann camps that they had compromised their popularity by dealing with the Khmer Rouge without getting much in return.

But the main outcome of the conference is yet to be tested. Will the muscular Khmer Rouge gain the "appearance of respectability" and its weaker competitors gain the "reality of guns?"

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